The World Health Organization (WHO) released its first-ever guidelines for how much screen time children under 5 years old should get, and it’s very, very strict: zero screen time for babies under 1 year old and just an hour a day for children aged 2 to 4 years old.
It’s similar to guidelines released by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in 2016, which says children below 18 months should avoid screens altogether, except when it’s used for video-chatting. Those between 18 to 24 months are allowed screens provided that “parents choose high-quality programming” like age-appropriate educational children’s shows.
The WHO has reinforced these recommendations to promote better quality sleep and more active play for children to grow up healthy, according to a news release. The organization says that sedentary behaviors like riding a car, sitting at a desk in school, watching TV or playing screen-based games are associated with poor health outcomes and can affect sleep.
Studies have shown that short sleep duration is associated with overweight and obesity in childhood and adolescence as well as mental health issues in adolescents. Most importantly, physical inactivity is a leading risk factor for death and contributes to the rise in obesity.
WHO defines sedentary screen time as “time spent passively watching screen-based entertainment,” whether it’s on a TV, computer, or mobile device.
“What we really need to do is bring back play for children,” Dr. Juana Willumsen, WHO focal point for childhood obesity and physical activity said in a statement. “This is about making the shift from sedentary time to playtime while protecting sleep.”
For infants less than a year old up to 4 years, the WHO advises parents to engage their kids in reading and storytelling for sedentary time instead of using devices. Physical activity through interactive floor-based play is also encouraged for older infants, and moderate to vigorous physical activity spread throughout the day for children ages 1 to 2 years.
For infants who are not yet mobile, WHO suggests they spend at least 30 minutes in a prone position (or on their tummy) spread throughout the day while awake. Recent research has found that spending time on the stomach is essential for building a baby’s strength and motors skills and may even affect his handwriting when he grows up. (Remember, tummy time should be done when your baby is wide awake.)
For kids at 3 to 4 years old, at least 180 minutes of physical activity per day is needed with 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity kind of play. For all ages, the prevailing thought is more physical activity, the better.
WHO's guidelines were met with mixed reactions. In the United Kingdom, Andrew Przybylski, director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford told Time that the advice “overly focuses on quantity of screen time and fails to consider the content and context of use. Not all screen time is created equal.”
Some also said that the stricter rules create more guilt for parents who are burdened with the task of limiting screen time. “It induces a real conflict. The more guidelines we give, it just seems like there’s going to be more of a mismatch between what experts say…and what it feels like to be a parent in the real world every day,” University of Michigan pediatrician Jenny Radesky, who is also the author of AAP’s screen-time guidelines, told The Washington Post.
But while a little screen time won’t hurt your child, various studies have shown how excessive use can be detrimental to their health, including delaying toddlers’ language and social skills. In the long run, letting your kids use gadgets unsupervised may even lead to screen dependency disorder.
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It is up to parents to decide whether to follow these guidelines or not, but it is a good reminder to cut back on usage, especially in a generation where using gadgets is almost second nature. Claudette Avelino-Tandoc, a Family Life and Child Development Specialist and Early Childhood Education consultant, told SmartParenting.com.ph parents need to take charge of managing the balanced use of technology at home.
“Devices are not bad per se. They are useful and essential tools for communication, research, learning, entertainment, among other things. Parents are dealing with 21st-century learners, what we call ‘digital natives.’ They should allow their kids to manipulate these tools. However, balance is key,” she says.